Two fictionalised memoirs and a complete fiction, the first one being The Book of Wag by Paul Sidey. Although this is a novel, it arose from speculation and research into his own family, whose background was South London. In the fictionalised account the chapters switch between Wag and Jack, his great nephew. Wag was knocking around during World War 1, so much of his account was life in the trenches and back in South London, where he was an engraver. Engraving, at which he was uncommonly skilled, led on to some rather underhand dealings with a friend, and on the point of discovery, luckily Wag was able to join the army and go out to France with the British Expeditionary Force; returning, his faith in the might of the British Army somewhat dented, via Dunkirk.
Jack’s life is very much in the same vein, he starts out honest and then gets in with a very unpleasant crowd, and more or less at the point of a gun has to find a way to forge some passports, whereupon he turns to his great-uncle…
Each chapter in turn fills out the story of these two branches of the same family and all the interconnected relationships of cousins, uncles and aunts which are set against the background of London during, after and beyond two world wars, up to the point when South and East London were run by two of the most notorious gangs – the Richardsons and the Krays. Not a good time to have a half life in the underworld.
Brilliantly evoked, this is quite a page turner. But it also demonstrates the rising interest in ancestry and heritage. There are some bruising encounters, moments of terror and wonderful family parties, memories of happy times and sad times in a large Victorian family and its varied descendants…wonderful stuff.
It is a great sadness that the author died from cancer before the book was actually published. This is a marvellous tale, well told.
The second book which has its roots in the memories of a grandfather is Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. This novel is very definitely set in the Second World War. Alternating between London and Malta. It is the Maltese part which closely follows the actual service of the author’s grandfather, who was stationed there. For those who do not know what Malta suffered as a result of the German and Italian blockade there are several interesting and riveting accounts. The island was brought to near starvation, and almost total collapse and held out against enemy action with unparalleled bravery for which the island and the islanders earned the Victoria Cross.
Everyone being brave in this novel switches between a young woman who joins the war effort at the outbreak of hostilities, only to find that far from being trained as a spy she is actually being recruited as a teacher and a soldier who is posted to Malta. Just as Mary is getting the hang of it, her school is evacuated and the head teacher tells her that her talents are not required. One of the evacuees is a little black child – Zachary. Mary remains concerned about him, but can do nothing for the time being. But losing her school she goes to the Education office to badger them for another job, thereby meeting another character who figures in the novel – Tom. Tom and his friend Alastair, Mary North and her friend Hilda make up the quartet of protagonists in this book, Alastair is the one posted to Malta.
Chris Cleave went to Malta as part of the research into this book and was amazed to find that from the details in his grandfather’s notebooks on his service in the war, he could pinpoint exact sites, beaches and lookout points – something that his grandfather had done in his own way, pinpointing exact places visited by Saint Paul based on the account in The Acts of the Apostles. History turns and turns upon a small island in the Mediterranean, run and overrun time and time again for thousands of years.
Another page turner. Beautifully and wonderfully constructed from fact to fiction. Importantly, bringing to life something (especially memories) that will soon be lost as that generation passes on to wherever it is our spirits go at the end of our lives.
The final book has no roots in real memory. Now & Again is only here because its construction is the exact replica of The Book of Wag, though switching between the Iraq war and a group of civilians in the United States centring on Maggie Rayburn. Charlotte Rogan has imagined a world filled with interesting and odd characters, from Maggie – whose epiphany occurs when she swipes a top secret document out of the office of her boss. She herself cannot account for her actions, but it precipitates firstly, a change of job – her new employer being the prison service in a private prison facility and secondly a campaign against all sorts of injustices about which she had not the vaguest notion until she began reading other documents which certainly were not meant for public consumption. In her circle and deeply affected by her strange behaviour are her husband, Lyle and son, Will and various friends and colleagues.
Counterbalancing the civil side of this book is a small group of soldiers, whom we first meet in action in Iraq. Back in America and out of action their lives are unbalanced and steadily degrading, until formed back into their original grouping under Captain Penn, so that Danny Joiner, Le Roy Jones and Joe Kelly begin a ‘truth about the war’ campaign on the internet – with interesting and connected results which in turn link with Maggie’s campaign.